Gossip serves a useful social purpose. It keeps us updated on what’s happening with our friends and co-workers. Spreading the word when someone is in trouble can bring offers of help. However, it can also be hurtful and spread illwill rather than goodwill. Here’s how to gossip less when that happens.
Good vs bad gossip
“Good gossip is just what’s going on. Bad gossip is stuff that is salacious, mean, and bitchy; the kind most people really enjoy.”
– Liz Smith
The difference lies in both the intention and the consequence. Good gossip should come with both well-meaning intentions and beneficial consequences for all. Bad gossip is when the intention or the consequence, or both, are not good.
Examples of good gossip could be:
- Parents talking about a difficult child and how to help him
- Spreading word about a project a colleague did well
- Warning a friend about someone’s suspicious behaviour in order to protect her from that person
Pruning the grapevine
Once gossip crosses over into the ‘bad’ category, what can we do? Tempting as it is to hear the juicy stories, most of us know in our hearts that we are compromising ourselves by taking part. You can adopt one of the following strategies:
- Remain silent: This is probably the easiest method. It allows you to continue listening without actively participating in it. The problem is you may be condoning the behaviour by being part of it.
- Speak up: Objecting forces others to recognise what they are doing. This requires more courage as you have to stand up to your pals and may come across as a self-righteous person.
- Change the subject: Safer and easier than directly confronting the speaker. The downside is that you may find yourself having to change the subject many times during the conversation.
- Walk away: Giving a reason to excuse yourself is a subtle way of sending a message that this activity is not acceptable to you. Unfortunately, not everyone gets a subtle message.
- Change friends: Drastic is this is, sometimes we have to accept that we have chosen the wrong friends, and the best thing we can do is to let go and find better ones.
Socrates’s Test of Three
Here are three questions you can ask the next time someone tries to engage you in gossip:
One day an acquaintance ran up to Socrates and said, “Socrates, do you know what I just heard about one of your students?”
“Wait a moment,” Socrates replied. “Before you tell me, I’d like you to pass the Test of Three. The first test is Truth. Have you made absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?”
“No,” the man replied, “actually I just heard about it.”
“All right,” said Socrates. “So you don’t really know if it’s true or not. Now let’s try the second test, the test of Goodness. Is what you are about to tell me about my student something good?”
“No, on the contrary…”
“So,” Socrates continued, “you want to tell me something bad about him even though you’re not certain it’s true?”
The man shrugged, a little embarrassed.
Socrates continued, “You may still pass though, because there is a third test – the filter of Usefulness. Is what you want to tell me about my student going to be useful to me?”
“No, not really…”
“Well,” concluded Socrates, “if what you want to tell me is neither True not Good nor even Useful, why tell it to me at all?”
The man was defeated and ashamed and said no more. This is the reason Socrates was a great philosopher and held in such high esteem.
The healthy grapevine – good gossip only
Our grapevine keeps us connected to the community we live in. Good gossip has a role in our lives. But bad gossip is a cancer that has to be cut away before it gets out of control and harms us.
It’s not always easy to draw and maintain this fine line, but I’m going to try and hope you will too!